On Memorial Day, millions of American families will take time to honor the memory of the men and women who lost their lives while serving in the U.S. military.
Outside of this day, we must never forget the countless veterans who lost their lives to suicide, substance use, mental health disorders, or the millions struggling after returning home. Too many veterans battle addiction and mental health issues in silence.
In Missouri, there are over 400,000 veterans, the vast majority being wartime veterans. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports over 3.9 million veterans have a substance use disorder or mental illness. Substance use disorders significantly increase suicidality among veterans ages 18 and over. Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are common among veterans ages 18 to 49.
"There is no simple answer as to why veterans become addicted to drugs or alcohol, but there are numerous causative factors," said Michael Leach of Addicted.org.
Many factors lead to substance use and mental health disorders within the veteran community. Many veterans struggle to adjust to civilian life. They may experience financial hardships, difficulty finding employment or opportunities and accessing benefits.
Many other veterans experience mental and emotional health concerns, physical injury or chronic pain. Untreated trauma can quickly develop into mental health issues or addiction. Illegal drugs, alcohol and prescription drugs are used as a means to cope.
Veterans also face barriers when accessing supportive services. This can include cost and health insurance gaps. Stigma regarding addiction and mental illness is still common. Veterans in rural communities have limited access, and many communities have inadequate funding.
It takes families and communities to come together to help veterans. Outside of the usual U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs resources, other options include:
The Official Missouri State Website provides numerous resources and information for veterans and their families;
The Missouri Department of Public Safety Veterans Commission provides a Service Officer Locator;
Helpful hotlines include the Veterans Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255, and the Lifeline for Vets, 1-888-777-4443;
SAMHSA provides a treatment facility locator where veterans can find specific programs for substance use and mental health disorders;
Families exploring financial options can consider combining VA benefits with other forms of health insurance such as Medicaid, Medicare or private health insurance.
Families play a significant role in supporting their loved ones. When speaking to them about their substance use, do so openly and honestly, express concern but refrain from passing judgment. Help them find treatment. Be patient and show compassion. Remember, these are treatable problems.
Memorial Day is a time to remember. But the following day and every day after that, we must not lose sight of the veterans who made it home and need a helping hand. A single act of compassion can save a life.
Veronica Raussin is a Community Outreach Coordinator for Addicted.org, passionate about spreading awareness of the risks and dangers of alcohol & drug use.